OKLAHOMA CITY – Sixty minutes before the marquee game for the In-Season Tournament on Tuesday, the NBA’s new big boys are dribbling. Victor Wembanyama stands near center court, touching his legs and back, followed by cameras and followed by a member of team security. Chet Holmgren simultaneously sits on the sideline, several minutes ahead of his scheduled warm-up time, and yo-yos below his knees.
Most rookies warm up first, before fans even enter the arena. After all, veterans choose first, and the slots closest to the start of the game run out quickly. But these two are different. They are the owners, the pillars and the very future of the championship. The first-year statute doesn’t apply equally to them, even for traditionalist franchises like theirs.
On Tuesday, Wembanyama and Holmgren’s first matchup of the regular season was, at least from a narrative perspective, a disaster. Holmgren’s Oklahoma City Thunder defeated Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs, 123-87. Neither of the two hulking greats, for all their guard skills and futuristic promise, scored in double figures.
But these two have been close since they first faced each other on the field in 2021, when the U.S. beat France in the FIBA Under-19 Championship match of the Basketball World Cup. There was an impressive pre-season showdown where they demonstrated why they (almost) literally can’t outshine each other, because they’re both ready to redefine what centers can be.
Now they are the league’s two Rookie of the Year favorites playing 469 miles away from each other. That juxtaposition was only strengthened by each player’s franchises, who chose them for the same reasons each used to construct their respective identities.
“Everything feels the same, especially the way they treat you,” said Doug McDermott, who joined the Spurs two years ago after already playing half a season with the Thunder. “They really put a lot into everything (besides) basketball.”
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San Antonio is the league’s most storied small-market franchise. From his roots in the ABA to his dynastic success in the NBA, he has had several No. 1 picks. 1 ever that defined its existence. Wembanyama is last, an incredibly long 7-4 anomaly from France who were desperate to join them before the lottery even determined this summer’s draft order.
Oklahoma City has none of that. It arrived just 15 years ago, an explosion in the consciousness of the sport not unlike the founding of the state. It quickly became a success, thanks in part to the players the franchise drafted high. But Holmgren, who missed his first season due to injury, is the highest draft pick since the franchise moved from Seattle. While he may not have the enthusiasm of Wembanyama, nor the dedicated security personnel, what he represents is similar.
In many ways, these franchises are more similar than different. The similarities are more than their small-market status, more than their mutual confinement, more than their team-building strategies at the draft and, now, more than the two centers representing not just the league’s future, but their own. It’s fitting that they’re separated only by a long afternoon’s drive on Interstate 35.
Sam Presti, general manager of Oklahoma City’s entire existence, was the architect behind the Thunder’s rise. He previously held another job within the NBA: a seven-year stint as assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, which taught him much of what he’s carried on ever since.
“It probably created a lot of cultural expectations for our environmental philosophy based on what (Presti) saw in San Antonio,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “That obviously had a huge influence on him professionally.”
In the context of this league, San Antonio was old money, more like a Fortune 500 company with a name and reputation that needs no explanation. Their rings and trophies speak for themselves. This is the league’s model franchise, which has defined geographic disadvantages and unavoidable market restrictions to win, win, and win some more.
Compared to them, Oklahoma City is the tech startup that has had a boom. It came not with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, basketball fundamentalists who adapt to their media-averse ethos, but with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, replete with glasses and lensless backpacks as fashion statements. The Thunder were a made-up concept taken from another city, one that had to earn its place – and, with the league’s best winning percentage since their arrival, they subsequently succeeded.
Both have revered traditions that each franchise makes visible within their walls. The one in San Antonio is a quote from Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis, posted just outside the team’s locker room in the language of every player on their roster. This year it has been added again in French.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and watch a stonemason hammer his rock maybe a hundred times without even a crack showing. Yet on the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know that it wasn’t that blow that did it, but everything that had happened before.
The cultural symbol of Oklahoma City is in the training field, a glittering place where even the grass outside, McDermott recalls, is artificially green. After each practice, the basketballs in the racks lining the courts are rotated so that the Wilson logos face outward. It evokes the same kind of repetitive coherence as Riis’s quote, the one by which both franchises want to define themselves.
But these two franchises are not the same and have once again distanced themselves from each other with their respective big men. Wembanyama and Holmgren could be the league’s next rivalry, but that’s not what the players think.
“I literally never thought about it,” Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said when asked if this game could be the start of something. “Maybe in a couple of weeks I’ll have an answer for you.”
To be honest, it will take a little longer. Oklahoma City, despite reaching the playoffs more recently than San Antonio, is further along its development curve. Holmgren was tasked with fitting into the core of the franchise led by Gilgeous-Alexander. Wembanyama has arrived at a Spurs franchise that asks him to lead it.
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And if these franchises reach their heights, they will be different thanks to these two players. When Holmgren faced Wembanyama in the preseason, it was Wembanyama who flexed after powering him with an and-1 layup — and Holmgren who later pointed out on social media that it probably should have been a foul, saying, “Headbutt is an unstoppable move fasho.
—Chet Holmgren (@ChetHolmgren) October 10, 2023
These franchises are adapting to their stars, a mutual assimilation that goes both ways. “I don’t want to have a road map (to Wembanyama),” Gregg Popovich said before the match. “I have to learn where he feels best on the pitch.” He relinquished control because Wembanyama arrived not to fill some holes at Duncan, but to create his own presence.
Even beyond Wembanyama, San Antonio has embraced change: party-colored jerseys alternating in the team’s gray and black dress; a new general manager, Brian Wright, who has made more trades since taking over in 2019 than predecessor RC Buford ever did. Wembanyama is bringing them into a new era, one that may not look quite like what San Antonio once did.
Presti, once described as a man with a recurring haircut appointment on his calendar, is equally adaptable. Those around him talk about how he navigates non-basketball obsessions — book genres, meditation, music producers — with passion. Holmgren could very well change him and the Thunder, the same way the Thunder’s identity shaped Holmgren.
And while that identity initially shared and may have been inspired by some of San Antonio’s genetic codes, it has long since been superseded.
“It’s not doing well because it was in San Antonio, but because it’s brilliant,” Popovich said. “What (Oklahoma City) did isn’t about San Antonio’s DNA, it’s about what Sam did.”
Wembanyama and Holmgren hardly saved each other in Tuesday’s match, with one exception in the first half in which Holmgren backed down on his French counterpart. Wembanyama, who had stretched out to reach shots previously thought to be unblockable, was unable to touch Holmgren’s turnaround shot. The Oklahoma City crowd was buzzing, ready to prove its Loud City nickname. Here it was, the moment they had come to see.
Holmgren’s sweater jingled. Sand sighed. The match ended with all the unfulfilled anticipation for the first clash between these two players.
It’s not time for these two yet, not yet, not until they continue to become who they are – and take their franchises with them.
(Top photo: Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)